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Former student-athlete sues UCF to vindicate First Amendment rights

Former University of Central Florida backup kicker Donald De La Haye has filed a complaint in federal court alleging that school administrators rescinded his athletic scholarship in violation of his First Amendment rights. The lawsuit is the latest attempt to establish the free speech rights of college student-athletes.

At the heart of the lawsuit lies De La Haye’s colorful YouTube channel featuring popular videos of him kicking TVs off buildings, playing tackle football on a slip and slide, and demonstrating that kickers are, in fact, legitimate football players, among others. Such videos have garnered him hundreds of thousands of subscribers, prompting YouTube to give him a share of the advertising revenue.

This is where the trouble lies: The NCAA’s policy on “amateurism” forbids student-athletes from using their “name, photograph, appearance or athletics reputation” to promote a business, nor does it allow compensation for the “publicity, reputation, fame or personal following that he or she has obtained because of athletic ability.” UCF found De La Haye in violation of this rule due to his earnings from his YouTube channel, rescinded his athletic scholarship, and effectively denied him an education at UCF as a result, according to his complaint.

In his lawsuit, De La Haye asserts that UCF violated his “right to communicate on social media platforms” by punishing him for the content of his online communications. He characterizes his videos as autobiographical entertainment — a form of expression that “UCF has an obligation to respect” as a public university fully bound by the Constitution. Pushing back against the NCAA rules, he states that UCF recognized that his following was acquired before he joined the football team and built without reference to this student-athlete status. Furthermore, according to De La Haye, his social media posts have caused no disruption of UCF and are related to his pursuit of a social media marketing and film career.

De La Haye is the latest student-athlete to stand up for his or her First Amendment rights. While many of the most recent controversies involve protesting during the national anthem, this dispute concerns the equally important issue of online speech. As we explain in our Statement on College Student-Athletes’ Free Speech Rights, “universities should honor and protect the expressive rights of their student-athletes to the fullest extent possible,” which includes expression both on and off the field.

FIRE will be watching De La Haye’s case closely, as it has the potential to the affect the thousands of student-athletes subject to NCAA rules on online, off-campus expression. We’ll be sure to keep our readers updated.

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